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Friday, October 03, 2008

On The Message

As Wayne pointed out yesterday, El Shaddai Edwards has blogged about the significance of The Message here. I will not quibble about its impact at all. There is a parallel NIV/Message version sitting on my night table. It makes great reading.

And as anyone who has read this blog regularly knows, I’m a great cheerleader for translations that speak contemporary English. Peterson’s English is great. He has the writer’s ear. But still I have some big problems with the Message.

First, The Message is monotonic.

When you read Peterson there is a single colloquial — even slangy — voice. It’s very engaging, true. But read the Greek and the NT has many voices writing in multiple genres. Paul is erudite, like a rabbi. He’s writing letters that go from colloquial to literary. The writer of Hebrews is eloquent. He writes beautiful Greek in an essay on theology. John has flashes of poetry, but it’s in the spare voice of a second language speaker. Mark and Matthew also have the undertone that Greek is not their native language. Luke, an educated Greek, is self-consciously writing history.

Secondly, half the NT is written by second language speakers and second language speakers don’t do slang.

Both of these objections come down to the fact that The Message just doesn’t fall on the English ear the way the original fell on the Greek ear, and to me that’s as much of a problem as the sacred-sounding archaisms of the KJV.

Getting that right is actually point of accuracy.

Now, don’t misunderstand me. I don’t mean accuracy in terms of literalism. I mean that Peterson misses things that a Greek speaker would hear (or not hear) in the text — things that can readily be captured in modern English.

Let’s take an old chestnut of mistranslation, John 3:16-18.

Here’s The Message:
This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life. God didn't go to all the trouble of sending his Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again. Anyone who trusts in him is acquitted; anyone who refuses to trust him has long since been under the death sentence without knowing it. And why? Because of that person's failure to believe in the one-of-a-kind Son of God when introduced to him.
and here’s the Greek:
3:16 οὕτως γὰρ ἠγάπησεν ὁ θεὸς τὸν κόσμον ὥστε τὸν υἱὸν τὸν μονογενῆ ἔδωκεν ἵνα πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων εἰς αὐτὸν μὴ ἀπόληται ἀλλ' ἔχῃ ζωὴν αἰώνιον 17 οὐ γὰρ ἀπέστειλεν ὁ θεὸς τὸν υἱὸν εἰς τὸν κόσμον ἵνα κρίνῃ τὸν κόσμον ἀλλ' ἵνα σωθῇ ὁ κόσμος δι' αὐτοῦ 18 ὁ πιστεύων εἰς αὐτὸν οὐ κρίνεται ὁ δὲ μὴ πιστεύων ἤδη κέκριται ὅτι μὴ πεπίστευκεν εἰς τὸ ὄνομα τοῦ μονογενοῦς υἱοῦ τοῦ θεοῦ
But ... the Greek doesn’t say
This is how much God loved the world: ...
it says literally
This is the way God loved the world: ...
or with the information implied in Greek but required for normal English
This is how God showed that he loved the world: ...
Looking further down in the passage, the Greek doesn’t have anything that suggests the slanginess of “go to all the trouble” or “point an accusing finger”. In fact, just from the point of view of referential accuracy, both these phrases are too weak.

“Go to all the trouble” is rather namby pamby when you think that the reference is to sending one’s child to be executed in the most excruciating way.

“Point an accusing finger” is what disapproving grandmothers do. Somehow it doesn’t measure up to the judgment that awaits everyone outside of the saving work of Jesus.

I don’t have a problem at all with translations that are more explicit in English, than the Greek appears at first blush to be. In comparison to the contemporary standards of English communication, Greek is painful terse. This is especially true of John and Mark. There’s no spiritual or theological value to following the terseness. It can even be misleading.

It is well known in anthropological circles that the norms of explicitness can vary widely from culture to culture. Roman era Levantine cultures, like most of their descendant cultures, are HIGH CONTEXT. That means that they put the barest necessities into words and expect the hearer to fill in the blanks.

In contrast northern European cultures, especially Germanic cultures, are LOW CONTEXT. They want everything to be spelled out in language.
For example, I have a friend who owns an apartment in Berlin in a building that was built around the turn of the last century. The elevator is the meticulously maintained original. You know, with wooden doors that open in and out, locked with an old fashioned skeleton key and a cabin entirely of wood.
By the buttons that control the thing is a little sign that spells out what is legal and illegal in the elevator. It includes sentences about it being illegal for humans to ride in freight elevators. For months, I was completely puzzled by this sign. The elevator in which it is posted is not a freight elevator. But did it mean that if I used this elevator to move, say, furniture, that I wasn’t allowed to ride in it as well. When I finally asked about it, my friend laughed. It was obvious to her German way of thinking that if you are going to say anything about the laws governing this elevator, you have to give the whole
elevator law. The fact that I had expections about being told only what is relevant, caused me to misinterpret what was said.
So it’s not a problem to me if there are more words in the English low context translation than in the Greek high context original. That doesn’t make it a paraphrase. But it is a problem if those extra words aren’t warranted by the reference and context of the passage.

And that’s where The Message fails.


At Fri Oct 03, 12:54:00 PM, Blogger Dru said...

Hear Hear. I couldn't agree more.

I for one profoundly agree with what you say about register. I also think it's even more critical with the difference between the Old Testament and the New Testament, and between different parts of the Old Testament.

I think the same issue arises, though in a less immediately noticeable way with the Knox version.

There's another issue for me with the Message, which is that because it tries so hard to be idiomatic, its English is much less standard than most other translations to non US readers. It's easy to spot the localisms of other peoples' writing. It's much harder to be aware of the localisms in ones own.

The NRSV and NIV, among others, are published in more than one version, but apart from the spelling shibboleths (shibbolethim?) there's not all that much difference between them.

If one reads internet reviews of different translations, they often say that the REB is noticeably UK English in flavour, but as a speaker of English English, I can't spot that. I am deaf to what the features are that make this stand out.

The Message is nothing like as extreme as the Psalms 'frae Hebrew intil Scottis', but it is sufficiently localised that a non-American person reading from it aloud will probably make spontaneous changes as they read.

Take as an example, I Cor 13 vv 1-8 in the Message. There's a US usage 'gotten', but that's nearly as shibbolethic as the spelling ones that most people know about - like 'elevator' in your attractive example, Richard. US readers though would probably be surprised to know that even in that short extract, there are at least two others.

"doesn't have a swelled head" - most of us would say 'swollen'.

"doesn't keep score of the sins of others" - most of us would say 'keep a score'.

I've no idea, and would be quite curious to know, whether 'swollen headed' or 'keep a score' sound linguistically neutral or alien to a US reader.

Despite all this, I would still agree with you Richard, that it's the register issue that's much more important.

Lots of people who have been reading the Bible for years find the Message really refreshing, a new take on words that have often become over familiar. I would though have serious reservations about recommending it to anyone as their sole or even their usual reading Bible.

At Fri Oct 03, 01:39:00 PM, Blogger Nathan Stitt said...

I've no idea, and would be quite curious to know, whether 'swollen headed' or 'keep a score' sound linguistically neutral or alien to a US reader.

Both "swollen headed" and "a swelled head" both sound equally strange to my American ears. The people I know would say "a big head" and neither of the two above. Personally, I've never used any of those expressions.

Both "keep score" and "keep a score" sound linguistically neutral to me; though I'd probably use the former expression.

By the way, excellent post Rich. You did a great job illustrating the problem with too much colloquialism in modern translations.

At Fri Oct 03, 01:45:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Dru, it's not so much that there are
Americanisms in The Message, but that there are Petersonisms. My wife and I love to use The Message for our devotions together. TM probably has the most impact upon us of any of the English versions today. But Peterson gets carried away by including some idioms which we've never heard anyone else use.

I wish someone could create a version with as much impact as The Message but without the oddities that Peterson includes. And, as Rich blogs, it would be nice if there were differences among the various genres of the biblical texts.

At Fri Oct 03, 01:49:00 PM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

Great post, Rich: "monotonic" is a great description of The Message. And, Dru, I love your point about Petersen's English being "much less standard" than most.

There does need to be qualification of your general statement, "second language speakers don’t do slang," Rich. And, Dru, the LXX (or Greek Septuagint) may be one reason there's not always English "difference between the Old Testament and the New Testament."

One idiom may suffice to illustrate:

τί ἐμοὶ καὶ σοί

Literally, it's "what to me and to you."

Just before John 3:16, John uses the phrasal idiom in 2:4. And Matthew, Mark, and Luke all use the "slang": respectively Mt 8:29 (where it's played with more, as Τί ἡμῖν καὶ σοί), Mk 5:7, & Lk 8:28.

It's used by LXX translators quite a bit too: 2 Sam 19:22, 2 Chron 35:22, Judges 11:12, I Kings 17:18. (The NET Bible footnote on John 2:4 suggests the Greek idiom is "Semitic in origin" but I think Antiphon, Xenophon, Demosthenes, Plato, and Euripides all play with this kind of "slang." And, in the NT, the "voice" of the writer of the epistle we call "James" is very Greeky--playing with the sounds of the language and the technical words of Greek rhetoric. Paul does some of that too, but he seems fairly proficient in Greek.)

So the point is, don't write off the NT writers as not being able to play with the Greek. And they may just be influenced by the word play of the LXX translators. The earlier Greek writers shouldn't have thought it strange or not standard.

With you, Nathan, I can't hear (of) any of us or them having a "swelled head." Yep, Peterson's English is different: "monotonic" and "less standard."

At Fri Oct 03, 01:50:00 PM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

I wish someone could create a version with as much impact as The Message but without the oddities that Peterson includes. And... [with] differences among the various genres of the biblical texts.

Wayne, You should do this.

At Fri Oct 03, 02:48:00 PM, Blogger ElShaddai Edwards said...

Wayne, You should do this.

I second that motion!

Thank you, Richard, for the excellent post (as always). Your underlying criticism of The Message - that [it] just doesn’t fall on the English ear the way the original fell on the Greek ear - also gets at the main point of what I was trying to say in my post: that The Message creates impact on the reader in a way that less contemporary translations don't.

The "significance" in my conclusion wasn't that The Message is the most accurate translation (paraphrase), but that its approach has the most potential for us to plug into this proclamation from God we call the Bible and feel it all the way down into our rotting bones.

Whether that impact is accurate or not, I will leave to those, such as yourself, who are better able to evaluate the texts.

At Sat Oct 04, 09:42:00 AM, Blogger codepoke said...

Yes, Rich, Yes!

I love the idea of the Message, and I enjoy individual passages and readings, but the constant minimization drives me nuts. And it's really the constancy that does it. Thank you.

At Sat Oct 04, 03:31:00 PM, Blogger John Hobbins said...

Excellent post and excellent follow-up comments.

Here are some further observations. It is true that the Gospel of John is devoid of slang and avoids colloquial expressions. That tells us about what it is NOT. It is a book whose language coheres with itself to a remarkable degree. The language is clear, terse, and profound all at the same time.

Is the clear, terse, concordant style a mere incidental? I don't think so. If so, a faithful translation will be as clear and terse and as concordant as possible.

I was disappointed that Rich did not translate John 3:16-18 after his own heart. Here is a miserable attempt at a clear, terse, concordant translation:

This in fact is how God loved the world: he gave us his Son who is like him in every way, and all who believe in him will not perish but have eternal life. God did not send his Son into the world to condemn it, but to save it through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned. But whoever does not believe in him has already been condemned, because he did not believe in the name of God's Son who is like him in every way.

I would defend my simplification of the Greek syntax by pointing out that, in terms of Greek, the syntax of the passage is simple. A translation on a register in English which is at the same level of simplicity in terms of English must remove subjunctives and less important examples of hypotaxis.

At Sat Oct 04, 09:21:00 PM, Blogger Jim Swindle said...

I find The Message doesn't speak to me clearly at all. I can't read it without analyzing it phrase by phrase to see whether it says anything close to what the real scripture says. I can't trust The Message. When I read it, I don't hear God speaking my language. I hear Peterson speaking my language, giving his interpretation of what God might have said. Cross-checking every phrase is just too much work for me.

I believe there's a reason why we have pastors and teachers. Part of their job is to apply the scripture to today's culture. I see no reason for a Bible paraphrase that tries to do that.

Most Protestant Christians are fully aware that what their pastor says is not on the same level of authority as what their Bible says. When I read bits of The Message, I'm reading something that has no more authority than a local pastor. Instead of The Message, give me a real Bible in any decent translation, anywhere on the spectrum from NLT and GOD'S WORD translation to KJV and NASB.


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